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The flood: Why adland's coordinated action against Facebook could signify real change

01 Jul 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The flood: Why adland's coordinated action against Facebook could signify real change

The coming together of legislators and advertisers could finally apply enough pressure to achieve reform and a rebalancing of the world of communications, writes Ray Snoddy

There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.

But which flood and whose fortune?

There is almost a mystic process whereby a social grievance long hidden in plain sight suddenly explodes into acute public awareness, and very belatedly action is taken.

The MeToo movement is a perfect example.

Women in the film and entertainment industries had been abused and disadvantaged from time immemorial and many people knew and looked the other way.

Change happens because of an incident, or in this case a few courageous individuals who first went public and then to law, but two other factors are vital.

There must be an underlying drift in social attitudes so that the trigger leads to a sense of outrage rather than indifference, and then the story has to be communicated.

Often this comes from hard-nosed journalism in newspapers or magazines but who can doubt the power of the accelerant applied by the social media.

After all, Julius Caesar created the circumstances surrounding his own misfortune. Brutus did not have to wield the knife alone.

The horrible death of George Floyd provoked such an international impact precisely because so many had suffered so many times before in similar ways at the hands of American cops that the trickle became a flood that washed across Facebook, Google and Twitter in an unstoppable wave.

But now it looks as if the wave could engulf the social media itself, which in many ways has had a positive effect on hastening overdue social change.

There has always been a dark side to the influence of the social media – some even argue that it's far more than just “a side” but something embedded in its DNA, even its reason for existence.

The charge sheet is extensive but includes disrupting, and sometimes even threatening to overturn, valuable social institutions not least properly funded journalism.

The most serious allegation is that social media, and Facebook in particular, has for years either ignored the presence of hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, self-harm enthusiasts and socially damaging misinformation, or at the very least done nothing like enough to control it.

There is even the possibility, unthinkable a few years ago, that it may be impossible to prevent such uncontrolled flows of toxic communications and that the financial model that has created the California billionaires may ultimately be seriously flawed.

Now all knives are out for Facebook and the attempts to be conciliatory merely emphasise how unresponsive the organisation has been in the past – even down to the sale of ancient artefacts.

For years there have been complaints about antiquities, many looted from ancient sites in Iraq and Syria, being traded on Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp.

Only now has Facebook decided to prohibit the exchange, sale or purchase of all historical artefacts on Facebook and Instagram.

As The Times also highlights, despite Facebook's efforts to stamp out hate speech, British groups are still at it using the site to spread anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and mad pandemic conspiracy theories.

Until very recently Facebook has relied on what campaigner Jim Steyer, who teaches civil rights courses at Stanford, calls High School standard First Amendment arguments.

There is no absolute right to freedom of expression, certainly not the right to spread hatred and harm and sell advertising on the back of it.

It was only last week that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be updating its advertising policies to prohibit hate speech.

Last week for God’s sake - after spending years claiming that Facebook was just a platform and therefore only partly – if at all - responsible for what appeared there.

Now Zuckerberg said the company was banning ads suggesting that gender, race, origin or religion was a threat to the physical safety or health of others.

The problem Zuckerberg faces is, rather like Caesar, he now has many attackers.

They even include Lord Puttnam and his House of Lords committee calling on the UK Government to push through Online Harms legislation to hold the social media giants accountable for “the pandemic of misinformation” they spread to the detriment not just of lives but democracy.

The danger for Zuckerberg lies in the confluence of several dangerous streams – Black Lives Matter coming together with the attacks on Covid-19 conspiracy theories and the rapidly changing attitudes in the advertising industry.

Rather like the spread of “taking the knee” on sports fields around the world you are now not a serious, socially conscious advertiser if you haven’t joined the movement to suspend or ban advertising on Facebook and Twitter.

You can argue all you like about the wisdom of advertising boycotts, but this one is real and turning into a flood that has knocked billions off the share price of both social media companies.

Ultimately, advertisers have the right to decide whether they want their commercial messages to sit alongside hatred and fake news.

Perhaps the main surprise is that despite occasional skirmishes in the past - led by senior marketing executives such as Keith Weed of Unilever - coordinated action has not happened before.

For the first time it is possible to suggest that a coming together of legislators and advertisers, and maybe even some consumers, could apply enough pressure to achieve reform, a rebalancing of the world of communications dominated by the California players.

The tide for reform is there and it’s building to a flood which could lead to the social media companies losing a fortune if they do not respond, and rapidly.

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and try to work out where we are now if not actually where we are going.

Since 1984 I have written the chapter on television and radio for the Annual Register of World Events, founded in 1758 by Edmund Burke.

It’s an interesting challenge trying to decide every January, like an amateur historian, what of lasting significance happened in the industry in the year just past.

In honour of the departure of the splendid editor of Mediatel News, David Pidgeon, who turned up at Mediatel in November 2012, it’s time to consult The Annual Register for that year.

Most of all it was both a magnificent and a disastrous year for the BBC.

There was the triumph of the BBC coverage of the opening of the London Olympics with no less than 24 digital channels to offer every event, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and 16 million plus audiences for the European Cup.

Then there was Savile, Newsnight on McAlpine and in George Entwistle, the BBC’s most temporary director general, and of course the Leveson inquiry into the phone hacking scandal getting under way.

It seems a long time ago and an almost unrecognisable world with not a hint or a mention of Apple, Google, Amazon, Twitter or even Facebook.

As David leaves for greater challenges than covering the media - climbing mountains, real mountains - the advice has to be more than for any of us: Stay not just Alert but Safe.

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05 Aug 2020 

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